10 December 2013

Napoli Preview: lies, damned lies, and statistics

I never thought I'd go into a match having to toss over so many permutations. Can we look to Dortmund to draw or lose at toothless Marseille, or will we have to assume that Dortmund will win, putting them at 12 points in the group, thereby forcing us to do better than a 3-0 loss to Napoli in order to advance on goal-differential among the teams level on points, goals against Marseille excluded? After all, should we lose to Napoli and Dortmund win, the three of us finish at 12 points, and it comes down to goal-differential. UEFA's rule 6.05b. says that, in the event that two or more teams finish level on points, the tie-break comes down to "superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question". In other words, goals against Marseille don't matter.

On that score, then, Dortmund has to win but can do little else. They're in a position of relative strength, though, as they are +3 in matches against Arsenal and Napoli. We're at +2 at the moment, and Napoli are at -3. Hence the reference to statistics. If Napoli can win 3-0, they go to a goal-differential of zero and we fall to -1, and rule 6.05.b sends them through. I assume that Dortmund will take care of business in Marseille, winless in the group and thirteen points adrift of the lead in Ligue 1. Last I checked, we were revelling in a certain Mancunian club being thirteen points off our pace. In other words, Dortmund looks certain to get to 12 points, thereby applying pressure to us.

Here's where my irritation comes in. Despite a fine run of form to end last season and begin this one, we're still pulling out every abacus we can find to determine just how well we must play or how poorly we can afford to play and still advance. We're a shoddy refereeing job and a lucky shouldered goal away from being invincible, and here we are scrabbling around to understand the in's and out's of how to qualify. It bespeaks a certain lack of confidence, one understandably borne from seasons of frustration but that in no way reflects our performance on the pitch. So we drew with Everton this weekend. Does that mean that we've somehow lost our verve, that we're staggering, reeling, about to fall to the mat?

Nope.

This is not the Arsenal of the last four or five years, limping across the finish line in fourth place yet again. It's not even the Arsenal of seven months ago, needing a desperate goal in the final match of the season to secure a fourth-place finish. We're playing with vim and vigor these days, thanks to the chemistry and camaraderie forged in last season's cauldron and brought to boil by the current squad's form, stoked by Ramsey and Giroud and Szczesny and Özil and so many others—it's a team-effort.

With that in mind, I'm done with calculating the various permutations of how we can back-door our way into the Champions League knockout stage. That's not who we are. I'm not going to stomp my feet and demand that we trounce Napoli, but I will ask that we set aside the spreadsheets and focus on playing a little bit of football. We did deliver one of our finest performances of the season when they came to town, for what that's worth.

It's a measure of the gap between our recently depressed expectations and the current form we're in. The pessimism that has seeped in prevents us from fully recognizing that, yes, we are legitimate contenders in the Prem and perhaps in the Champions League as well. As such, we resort to looking for the loopholes in UEFA rules instead of simply believing that we'll advance. I don't care to assess the odds of various outcomes and the maths involved, not because I'm blithely arrogant about us but because I've seen enough of us in action this season and in seasons past to recognize that we're better than that. We're not great—that kind of designation is usually awarded retroactively—but we're pretty damned good, good enough to see a positive result at the Stadio San Paolo.

Hell, the last time we traveled to Italy, it was to deliver a 3-0 smack-down of AC Milan. For those still quibbling over goal-differentials and points and UEFA regulations, take that to heart. Yes, that rally fell short, but we've shuttled those who bottled out their chances (van Persie, Gervinho), but we don't quite need the historic rally this time 'round.

Still, I don't see us backing our way through the door to the next round. I'll stop short of calling for a repeat of recent UCL away-legs (we have, after all, won at Dortmund, at Marseille, and at Bayern), but I do believe that we have the cojones to see ourselves through regardless of what happens in Marseille. We tore into their left flank the first time around, and that was without Walcott available to run behind their defenders. A goal from Walcott, who could have a field day running behind Napoli's high line and left flank, and maybe one from Giroud, should see us through.